A handful of 2023 NFL Draft picks will sign their contracts over the next couple of days, which coincides with the start of rookie minicamps. NFL teams will hold a three-day rookie minicamp either this weekend (May 5-8) or next weekend (May 12-15).
The Carolina Panthers have gotten the ball rolling. Cornerback Jammie Robinson, a fifth-round pick, is the first player of the 2023 draft class to agree to terms. Expect at least a quarter of the draftees to sign contracts within two weeks of the draft's completion.
Here's a look at the deals a select group of first-round picks are expected to sign, followed by an explanation of how the rookie wage scale operates as well as a discussion highlighting important considerations or issues relating to the first-round contracts.
|Pick||Name||Team||2023 Salary Cap Number||Signing Bonus||4-Year Total|
|3||Will Anderson Jr.||Texans||$6,402,330||$22,609,320||$35,212,815|
|6||Paris Johnson Jr.||Cardinals||$5,100,447 ||$17,401,788||$28,052,459 |
|7||Tyree Wilson||Raiders||$4,546,454 ||$15,185,816||$25,005,497 |
|8||Bijan Robinson||Falcons||$3,992,462 ||$12,969,848||$21,958,541 |
|9||Jalen Carter||Eagles||$3,964,761 ||$12,859,044||$21,806,186 |
|10||Darnell Wright||Bears||$3,812,413 ||$12,249,652||$20,968,272 |
|12||Jahmyr Gibbs||Lions||$3,244,570 ||$9,978,280||$17,845,135 |
|16||Emmanuel Forbes||Commanders||$2,801,376 ||$8,205,504||$15,407,568 |
|20||Jaxon Smith-Njigba||Seahawks||$2,621,329 ||$7,485,316||$14,417,310 |
|24||Jordan Addison||Vikings||$2,496,679 ||$6,986,716||$13,731,735 |
|26||Dalton Kincaid||Bills||$2,441,280 ||$6,765,120||$13,247,040 |
|32||Felix Anudike-Uzomah||Chiefs||$2,148,694 ||$5,594,776||$11,817,817 |
*Note: For the purposes of this table, there are 32 draft slots. There were only 31 first-round picks this year because the Miami Dolphins were stripped of their selection (No. 21 overall) due to tampering."
How the rookie wage scale operates
The rookie wage scale is essentially a salary cap within the overall salary cap. The increases in rookie salaries from one draft class to another are primarily tied to growth of the salary cap. Signing bonuses are going up 1% for the third straight year although the salary cap increased by $16.6 million or 7.97%. This is because the NFL and NFLPA agreed in 2020 to borrow money from future rookie wage scales to keep 2021 rookie deals from decreasing because of the 2020 revenue shortfall caused by COVID-19.
There's a league-wide limit on the total amount of compensation for rookies with specific salary parameters for each draft slot. Teams have maximum and minimum amounts that can be spent on their picks based on draft position.
All contracts for draft choices are four years. Each pick in the draft has a salary floor and ceiling in the first year and over the four years of the contract. There are very few negotiable items with rookie contracts anymore. The salary components of a deal are restricted to signing bonus, base salary, roster bonus, reporting bonus, workout bonus and select incentives. The type of salary escalators and incentives that used to be responsible for salaries skyrocketing at the top of draft are prohibited under the rookie wage scale. A majority of picks only have signing bonuses and base salaries in their deals.
An extremely important aspect of these deals is the first-year salary cap number (also known as the rookie pool number) because it helps determine the overall value of a contract. The first-year cap number or rookie pool number consists of the player's prorated amount of signing bonus and the rookie minimum base salary, which is $750,000 in 2023.
The maximum annual increase in each of the four years of a deal is 25% of the first-year cap number. To illustrate this concept, 2022 ninth overall pick Charles Cross' cap numbers were limited to a $971,983 increase in each year of his deal because his first-year cap number was $3,887,932. Since all of these deals have minimum base salaries in the first year, the remainder of the contract is derived within these constraints.
Draft pick contracts can't be renegotiated until the conclusion of a player's third NFL regular season. This means the earliest Cross' deal can be redone is in January of 2025.
Teams have an option for a fifth year with first-round picks that must be exercised after the third year of the deal. The period for exercising fifth-year options begins after a player's third NFL regular season ends (Jan. 9, 2023 with the 2020 first-round picks). These options must be picked up prior to May 3.
The 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement changed how fifth-year options operate. The fifth-year salary is fully guaranteed when the option is exercised. A player's fourth-year base salary becomes fully guaranteed when the option year is picked up if it wasn't already.
The fifth-year salaries are no longer strictly tied to where a player was drafted (i.e.; top 10 or outside of top 10). Performance dictates the option year salaries. With two or more Pro Bowl selections on the original ballot during the first three seasons of contracts, the fifth-year salary is the franchise tender, which is the average of the five-highest salaries for a player's position, in the fourth year of his contract. For example, 2020 22nd overall pick Justin Jefferson's fifth-year option with the Vikings for 2024 is the 2023 franchise tender for wide receivers, which is $19.743 million, because he was selected to the Pro Bowl on the original ballot in each of his three NFL seasons.
One Pro Bowl selection on the original ballot during the first three seasons of deals puts the fifth-year salary at the transition tender, which is the average of the 10 highest salaries for a player's position, in the fourth year of his contract. Quarterbacks Joe Burrow (Bengals) and Justin Herbert (Chargers) as well as Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb have a 2024 fifth-year salary at the 2023 transition tender for their respective positions.
Participating in 75% of offensive or defensive plays, whichever is applicable, in two of the first three seasons of deals or an average of at least 50% playtime in each of their first three seasons sets the fifth-year salary at the average of the third through 20th highest salaries at a player's position. For first-round picks who don't fall into any of these three categories, the fifth-year salary is the average of the third through 25th highest salaries at a player's position.
The Proven Performance Escalator, which increases the fourth-year salary for third through seventh-round picks, now also applies to second-round picks and is more expansive with higher playtime thresholds.
Third through seventh-round picks still have a salary escalator for their fourth year based on participating in a minimum of 35% of the offensive or defensive plays, whichever is applicable, in two of the first three seasons of their deals or an average of at least 35% playtime in their first three seasons. The salary equals the original draft round restricted free agent tender in the fourth year. The number is $2.743 million this year. With second-round picks, the required playtime is 60% in order for the fourth-year salary to be at this level.
The fourth-year salary for second through seventh-round picks increases to the original draft round restricted free agent tender in that specific year plus $250,000 with at least 55% offensive or defensive playtime in each their first three seasons of the contract. $2.993 million is the number for this year. Fourth-year salary will elevate to the second round restricted free agent tender with at least one Pro Bowl selection on the original ballot in the first three years of a rookie deal. The second round restricted free agent tender is $4.304 million this year.
There are very few negotiable items with rookie contracts anymore. The two primary negotiating issues, particularly at the top of the draft, are the payment schedule of the signing bonus and whether salary guarantees will have offsets. Another important consideration is the language outlining the voiding of salary guarantees.
A majority of rookies didn't sign contracts until the latter part of July as training camp approached before the rookie compensation system was overhauled in the 2011 CBA. In 2010, no player selected in the first two rounds had signed by the fourth of July. First-round picks holding out wasn't unusual, either. For example, 2007 first overall pick JaMarcus Russell held out for 47 days before signing with the Raiders. Rookie holdouts are largely a thing of the past.
The Chargers and third overall pick Joey Bosa engaged in the longest contract dispute for an incoming NFL player under the rookie wage scale in 2016. Bosa was the first rookie since 2013 that didn't show up to training camp on time. He missed 31 days before signing his contract.
Linebacker Roquan Smith, 2018's eighth overall pick, missed the first two weeks of training camp because he and his agents objected to language where the Bears had the right to void his guarantees for an ejection or suspension from a game for violating NFL playing rules. A compromise was reached on the number of games in a suspension necessary to trigger voiding.
The Chargers and Bosa weren't disagreeing over the amount of money in his contract because the total value was dictated by the rookie wage scale's constraints. The dispute was largely over the payment schedule of Bosa's signing bonus, the inclusion of roster bonuses and related language if the deal contained offsets. A major concession the Chargers made to Bosa was a better payment schedule than they typically give to players with big signing bonuses.
An offset clause allows a team to reduce the guaranteed money owed to a player when he is released by the amount of his new deal with another team. The player receives his salary from the team that released him in addition to the full salary from his new contract with another club when there isn't an offset (also known as "double dipping").
Agents have essentially lost the battle on offsets. Teams with early first-round picks in 2013 were adamant that contracts contain offsets after largely conceding the issue the previous year. As a compromise for top 10 picks, teams structure deals with minimum base salaries in the final three years where the remainder of a player's salary is in annual fully guaranteed third or fifth day of training camp roster bonuses.
Nearly every team besides the Jaguars and the Rams, who don't have a first-round pick this year, require offsets with salary guarantees for draft picks, including those selected in the top 10. In addition to 2022 first overall pick Travon Walker, the Jaguars didn't necessitate offsets with 27th overall pick Devin Lloyd's guarantees. Based on past practices, 28th overall pick Anton Harrison's contract with the Jaguars shouldn't contain offsets.
More players throughout the first round may push for training camp roster bonuses with base salary no longer paid over the course of the 18-week regular season. Beginning in 2021, base salary started being paid over a period of 36 weeks (twice the number of regular season weeks). 14th overall pick Alijah Vera-Tucker was the last player taken in the first round to have any training camp roster bonuses in 2021. Training camp roster bonuses extended to 21st overall pick Trent McDuffie last year.
Large signing bonuses in NFL contracts aren't typically paid in one lump sum. This is a long accepted practice in the NFL. Signing bonuses for top draft picks have typically been paid in two to four installments.
Lump sum payments are starting to become more accepted at the top of the first round. The Jaguars made a big departure from their customary signing bonus payment schedule with 2021 first overall pick Trevor Lawrence. His entire $24,118,900 signing bonus was payable within 15 business days of signing, which established a new precedent for Jacksonville. 2022 first overall pick Travon Walker was able to get the same payment schedule as Lawrence from the Jaguars with his $24,360,088 signing bonus.
Generally, quarterbacks have been more successful in getting signing bonus paid in its entirety shortly after signing. In addition to Lawrence in 2021, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance, the second and third overall picks, got their $22,924,132 and $22,163,824 signing bonuses paid in a lump sum by the Jets and 49ers, respectively. Receipt of the money was in a similar timeframe as Lawrence.
The first two picks in 2020 had lump sum signing bonus payments. First overall pick Joe Burrow's $23,880,100 signing bonus was paid within 15 days of signing his contract with the Bengals. Second overall pick Chase Young got his $22,697,160 signing bonus from the Commanders within 30 days of signing.
Prior to that, 2018 third overall pick Sam Darnold's entire $20,078,324 signing bonus was payable by the Jets within 15 days of inking his deal. 2019 second overall pick Nick Bosa got a lump sum payment from the 49ers. His $22,421,356 signing bonus was payable in the same timeframe as Darnold's.
It will be interesting to see whether Bryce Young will be able to extend the lump payment to four straight years with the first overall pick when the Panthers sign him. Carolina has had top 10 picks in each of the last three drafts. None of the players have gotten their signing bonus in a lump sum. For example, 2022 sixth overall pick Ikem Ekwonu received $12,060,644 of his $17,299,492 signing bonus within 30 days of executing his contract. The remaining $5,168,848 wasn't payable until April 1, 2023.
Signing bonus payment could be also a sticking point with second overall pick C.J. Stroud. Three of the last four players selected second overall (Wilson, Young and Bosa) have gotten lump sum signing bonus payments. Aidan Hutchinson didn't last year. Half of his $23,153,372 signing bonus was paid by the Lions within 30 days of signing. The other half was received in the middle of September. Hutchinson's payment schedule was essentially the same as 2021 seventh overall pick Penei Sewell had with the Lions.
The Texans didn't give 2022 third overall pick Derek Stingley Jr. his $22,385,464 signing bonus in a lump sum. He got $17,908,372 within 15 days of signing. The other $4,477,092 was paid on Dec. 15, 2022.
Conceding the signing bonus payment issue to Stroud could be more problematic for the Texans than it would be for the Panthers with Young. The Texans traded up to the third overall pick to select Will Anderson Jr.. Anderson's representation will surely insist on a lump sum payment if Stroud gets one.
For the first time since the rookie wage scale was implemented in 2011, the entire contracts for all first-round picks were fully guaranteed. It had been the first 28 picks with fully guaranteed contracts in 2021. The deals for the final four picks of the first round were guaranteed for the first three years. A decreasing portion of the fourth-year base salary was guaranteed as those final picks progressed. The fully guaranteed contract precedent for first-round picks established in 2022 should be here to stay.